What started as a Netflix DVD date-night-in a few years ago culminated in a February visit to El Chalten, Argentina, the quirky little “Swiss Village of the Patagonian Alps.”
On a sunlit morning, we bussed across the invisible line separating Chile from its Eastern neighbor and began the second half of our visit to the lower lands of South America. Following a short mid-afternoon stopover in the lakeside tourist city of El Calafate, we zoomed another several hours to the north and came upon El Chalten as the sun set behind the stunning mountain range.
At this moment of dusk, the grand peaks of Cerro Fitz Roy called out, “Congratulations, tired travelers! You’ve reached the land of mountain climbers, wildlife, and majestic peaks: the remote frontier of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares.”
Interesting: the border between Chile and Argentina passes across the summit of Cerro Fitz Roy.
We first learned the region’s story from the entertaining 2010 documentary 180 Degrees South. If you haven’t seen it yet, take a peek at the preview of the film that follows a young man retracing Yvon Chouinard and Douglas Tomkins’ 1968 trailblazing trip from California to Patagonia and toward the the top of Cerro Fitz Roy:
In the fifties, sixties, and seventies, hardcore mountain climbers made efforts to reach the iconic spires of Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, and the sleepy little town accommodated them within its modest abilities.
Over recent decades, the influx of climbers from around the world seeking to make their way to the top of the impossible peaks has increased the number of supply shops and guest houses, pizza joints and internet cafes.
Adventurous non-climbers, too, have clambered to reach this sleepy town as a jumping off point for visiting Parque Nacional Los Glaciares’ network of easy day hikes and free camp sites.
At our visit, El Chalten showed stretch marks belying acute growing pains.
Not long ago, this town was only connected to travel routes by rough gravel roads. It appears now that the recent completion of asphalt highway linking the town by four hour bus to tourism-driven El Calafate sealed the deal, and the boom has pushed a surge of construction.
Blocks of new homes, new sidewalks, new windbreaks planted along fence lines look oddly polished and proper adjacent to El Chalten’s older structures with their slightly cockeyed angles and scraps piled out front.
When Ted and I visited, we stayed in a guest house run by Argentinians from Buenos Aires who opened the establishment as their summer-time second business. For a few months each year, they move to El Chalten, check rooms out to visitors, provide toast, jam, and tea in the mornings and hiking maps for the day, and pocket a pretty profit by season’s end.
The city must plan well as the town changes and grows to accommodate increased numbers of travelers visiting Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as home of the planet’s third largest ice cap behind Antarctica and Greenland).
This brings to mind a recent landscape architecture/planning read – Don’t Reinvent the Wheel, Steal It: An Urban Planning Award for Cities that Copy. “The world’s ‘567,000 mayors are reinventing the wheel, every single one of them with everything’ they do, says Sascha Haselmayer, general director of Living Labs Global, a Copenhagen-based non-profit that encourages collaboration among the world’s cities.” Their 2012 project aims to meet international cities’ development needs in a collaborative way, importing solutions from other leaders rather than recreating products or services for each separate city.
I wonder, in what way could small towns such as El Chalten benefit from international dialog among other city planners, leaders, and visionaries? Questions of development, sprawl, compromised resources, and long-term sustainability are being posed the world over; my hope is that this Argentinian village is able to grow gracefully and set an example of responsible tourism-based development in Patagonia. Only time will tell…
As for our part in playing tourists:
We’d planned a three night stay: one at the guest house, one at a campground inside the park, and a final night back in town before returning to El Calafate. Since Ted’s back still bothered him from the ill-fitting pack in Torres del Paine, we scrapped the overnight camping plans, opting for a day hike to Lago Torres with its views of Glacier Grande.
The hiking trails begin just where the new residential developments fade into the wild brush. A quick three minute climb up the slope, and the entire town in the middle of nowhere is visible from the overlook.
Never would’ve expected Comic Sans to reach its ugly claws all the way to the ends of the earth…
Such diversity to be seen while trekking through the vast open spaces of the National Park:
All the details of nature, alive and bright along the trail…
Evidence of another Patagonian forest fire in the not too distant past…
We reached Lago Torres by midday and ate lunch in the wind blowing off the lake.
Chairs aren’t needed when you can sit on the wind!
Day trip concluded, we slept a second night in El Chalten, and then made our early morning way back toward sunrise, toward coffee, toward the bus station, toward El Calafate.
What a trip. What an education.
These bus rides, zigging and zagging across the countryside, continue to release into three dimensions the places once trapped on book pages and television screens…
We’ve been pinching ourselves, utterly amazed at the adventure of real life.
The National Parks of Chile and Argentina preserve only a small portion of Patagonia’s vast landscape, and impressive private efforts continue to be made to protect the region’s finest wilderness areas. The Conservation Land Trust, endowed and led by Doug Tompkins (see 180 Degrees, above) in partnership with benefactors, land owners, and volunteers has successfully worked on conservation projects in Chile and Argentina.
“CLT is dedicated to the creation and/or expansion of national or provincial parks to ensure the perpetuity of their ecological and evolutionary processes with the strongest long-term protection guarantee possible. CLT also supports programs for the protection of wildlife, reintroduction of locally extinct species, land restoration and programs for local development, normally involved in ecotourism, sustainable farming and environmental education.” -CLT Mission
Take a few minutes to have a look at their vision and values and read through project stories from South America…